FringeReview UK 2018
Racky Plews directs and choreographs, Rob Wicks’ band making punchy work of Keith Strachan’s orchestration. Blair Anderson’s the Associate director/choreographer one imagines is responsible for the tour. Steve Howell’s set stars that No. 9 London bus and a superb array of costumes. To a bare floor Tim Deiling’s lighting and Paul Smith’s sound do the rest. With Jessica Plews’ wigs.
You might have seen the joyous 1963 film, that literal vehicle for Cliff Richard as he steers a No. 9 Piccadilly bus through Europe to Greece, instead of the Albert Hall. Writers Ronald Cass and Peter Myers hit on bliss with The Young Ones and this takes us into the workplace, a bit more grown-up, a bit more continental too. Summer Holiday is colour-saturated with optimism; suffused with early-sixties innocence. We all know what a cliff-edge to the swinging sixties that was – and there’s more bumpy puns on this ride.
So in 1996 Michael Gyngell and Mark Haddigan created the musical, substituting Italy for Yugoslavia as that country broke up in the Nineties. This revival starring Ray Quinn as Don splashes into its Brighton leg of a tour produced by David King with executive direction by Graham King.
It’s Racky Plews though who directs and choreographs this (necessarily) cut-down narrative importing more Cliff songs including ‘The Young Ones’ with Rob Wicks’ band making punchy work of Keith Strachan’s orchestration. They really deserve an accolade as they and Quinn with an energetic cast keep the bus rolling even when there’s steam from the gasket, judders en route and more than stolen keys to stall whatever’s going on inside No. 9. Blair Anderson’s the Associate director/choreographer one imagines is responsible for the tour.
Steve Howell’s set stars that No. 9 London bus with its partial cutaway on the starboard side, with working lights, steam effects and drop-down period banners telling us what country we’re in. Special shoes allow the cast to rollerball as mimic skiers in Switzerland, a few props and dry-ice emissions stage right from an (offstage) car disgorging three singers.
To a bare floor Tim Deiling’s lighting and Paul Smith’s sound do the rest. And Jessica Plews’ wigs. Lighting settles in the second half but this and some mic-drop skewed the first so Quinn & Co. worked hard to bring on extra sunshine of their own. There’s some quietly attractive lighting effects for the opening of Part Two, the ski scene, with more spotlit moments later on. Overall it should be fixed when you see it.
The simple plot’s been reduced to picaresque events. A quartet of bus mechanics get permission to drive one of their depot’s buses on a kind of busman’s holiday, the guiding pun beneath the whole storyline. Billy Roberts is Quinn’s No. 2 Steve, Joe Goldie’s Edwin, the Malcolm Hayes character from the film, and Rory Maguire’s Cyril the lanky larky one.
We open to London in the rain ‘Is It Still Raining?’ and then ‘Seven Days to a Holiday’ with ‘Summer Holiday’ sashaying in, and later such standards as ‘Gee Whizz, It’s You’ and ‘Let Us Take You For a Ride’ all decent enough though none as memorable as the title song.
En route they find a stranded girl group trio en route to Athens and a competition. So singers elect to join mechanics as the boys pronounce their car dead and abandon it. These people were flush then. Gabby Antrobus is elegant statuesque blonde Mimsie, Alice Baker the more doubting dark-haired Alma, the one who hesitates, with Laura Marie Benson’s red-topped Angie by turns daffy and chest-first flirty. They’re uniformly excellent, dressed in colour-coded red (blonde Mimsie) green (flame-haired Angie), blue (brunette Alma) and yellow… well wait and see. So which of the boys will they pick and who’ll be left out? Not Don surely?
Farther on they discover a stowaway in their cutaway bus. This is fourteen-year old boy runaway Bobby. Except she isn’t; our septet have no idea there’s an even bigger-billed singer than the trio in their midst. We’re treated before this to a studio with backing vocals dressed up like Liberace whether male or female – costumes are the real set bar the bus and constantly inventive. Indeed Bobby, or Barbara sings ‘Constantly’ deliberately flat; it’s a parody song already with stars in its stern and perhaps she didn’t need to try too hard to make it dreadful.
Sophie Matthew’s Barbara Winter (how could they get away with it? American accent I suppose) has escaped the clutches of mom Stella, Taryn Sudding’s touch of Cruella de Ville as the controlling mother from hell pushing her daughter’s singing career to destruction and needing a break as she explains to sidekick Jerry, long-suffering Wayne Smith. Barbara’s disappearance provides just that. Sudding and Smith provide the comic ‘rats!’ chorus: constantly thwarted, never truly villainous. Unfazed by her daughter’s potential plight, Stella acts up to newspapers and tracks down her daughter at the same time. A red bus is a moving target. And a mobcap is a frail thing, as Bobby discovers.
By this time we’re whizzing past the charming ‘I Could Easily Fall I Love With You’ where three couples couple up, ‘Time Drags By’ and the fine extra song from the film added last: ‘Bachelor Boy’ where Quinn sings to Bobby why it’s a good idea to stay single. Bobby’s not so sure, but hardly in a position to say so. Quinn burns this beautifully. Elsewhere his trio of mates provide fine harmonies too.
As the good companions roll through to Switzerland Stella’s ruses – pulling in old ambassador admirers (‘I’m your marshmallow’) demanding performers’ proofs, or planting ‘stolen’ diamonds and transplanting bus keys – all snatched on and off by Jerry – dog the careering bus and the careers of the girls trying to get to that competition in Greece. Act One ends near the border where the infectious ‘Dancing Shoes’ and ‘We Say Yeah’ really up-tempo the bumpy run of numbers in the first half (we’ve had a few stand-outs of course). Special mention ought to be made of Dance Captain Adam Crossley and Sam Gallacher who takes on several roles and proves himself a marvellous dancer too. And there’s a revelation. That cap…
That ski moment opens with ‘Move It’ and we’re in the slightly stronger Act Two, both musically and dramatically. The duet between Matthews and Quinn ‘A Swinging Affair’ where Don, hurt by a previous love-affair affirms light-touch where of course Matthews’ Barbara’s a lot more committed to Don than she is to her ailing career. Matthews who looks and acts perfectly for Barbara enjoys an appealing rawness to her harmony, more youth than anything, but which could blossom to a characterful voice.
The sextet of lovers get together for a spotlit bonding as each of the three couples in turn sing ‘I’ve Got a Funny Feeling’ with appeal and aplomb. It’s difficult to single anyone out: they’re all excellent. ‘Living Doll’ also an insert number allows lots of synch and choreographed fun. They rescue a stranded bride and sing a slew of so-so upbeat numbers ‘Lei Vuole Balare’ ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ ‘La La Song’ which get upstaged by the glorious ‘The Young Ones’ as finally Don falls. Quinn’s wonderful here, worth the price of the ticket.
So finally our hero and heroine get to where Barbara declares: ‘I’ve loved you ever since I was a boy’. It’s still a bit heart-stopping. Somehow amidst goat-throwers the ensemble and bus make it across reprising ‘Summer Holiday’, are confronted by Stella and Jerry, officials and the competition. When Barbara’s fame is also revealed Don huffs off with ‘I’m The Lonely One’ and ‘The Next Time’, two fine numbers before reconcilement and the press conference where declarations and the ensemble ‘Big News’ with lots of routines making this finally exhilarating. The curtain-call with costume changes, bikinis and much more is as strong as the encore medley.
Production values in the final sections are so much better that one hopes the rest beds in too. There’s no disguising a lack of support for Ray Quinn and his superb ensemble who work their bobby-socks off with notable support from Rob Wicks and his band, the costumes and bus. Quinn in particular is bottled sunshine: not to be squandered in hot weather! The vehicle’s potential gold, Quinn and his band and the orchestral one in the pit are the real thing. Give No. 9 a proper MOT and it’ll strike gold too.